Sleep is the critical element that allows you to attain success in your peak performance, weight loss and longevity goals. No matter how clean you eat or how often you exercise, if you’re chronically sleep-deprived and stressed, or if you’re not getting regular quality sleep, you’re sabotaging your efforts.
Early humans got more sleep per night because their circadian rhythms were more closely synchronized with the rising and the setting of the sun. Today we have artificial light to extend our active periods and many other distractions preventing us from getting adequate sleep. Although we all differ in the amount of sleep we need, some experts recommend that we get as much as nine hours of sleep per day. Unfortunately, about a third of us in North America are thought to be affected by chronic sleep loss or sleep disorders. A recent survey uncovered that many who are at risk of insomnia engaged in stimulating activities an hour before getting into bed: 90 percent watched TV, 33 percent were on their computers and 43 percent were doing household chores. That means, presumably, that watching TV shows about household chores on your computer would keep you up all night.
The Goldilocks Principle
Sleep deprivation has profound effects on hormones that control metabolism, appetite, mood, concentration, memory retention, and cravings. It is associated with high blood pressure, elevated stress hormone levels, irregular heartbeat, and compromised immune function, and it drastically increases your risk for obesity and heart disease. Results from the 2004-2006 U.S. National Health Interview Survey indicated that adults who usually slept less than six hours were much more likely to smoke, drink more than five glasses of alcohol, not exercise, and be obese. Interestingly, adults who slept more than nine hours also engaged in these unhealthy behaviors. Researchers from the University College London found that lack of sleep, or too much of it, more than doubled your risk of death. Scientists are quite familiar with the links between poor sleep and cardiovascular disease, but they’re not sure why sleeping too much is also bad for you. A possible connection to depression and low socioeconomic status has been found, but this needs to be further elucidated.
Cryptochromes sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but they’re actually a very ancient protein that is found in every single plant and animal on our planet. Sensitive to the blue light of dawn and dusk, cryptochromes are involved in our circadian rhythms and are found in the eyes and skin, meaning that our bodies can detect sunshine even if our eyes are covered. Ever wondered how blind folks tell whether it’s day or night? Cryptochromes detect diminishing sunlight and signal the pineal gland to convert serotonin, which has kept your mood elevated all day, to melatonin, which gives you a good night’s rest. When light increases in the morning, melatonin production is suppressed and serotonin rises, allowing you to wake up refreshed and recharged. This is why the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) is such a popularly prescribed antidepressant. All people really need to overcome some cases of depression and anxiety is more sleep.
Light kills Melatonin
Extended exposure to artificial light disrupts the natural rhythm of serotonin-melatonin production that we’ve evolved over millennia of living on earth. Melatonin is inhibited by light and brought on by darkness, so the longer you stay up, the lower your melatonin production will be, and that’s going to have some negative consequences on your mental and physical health. Research suggests that premature aging is related to low melatonin levels during sleep. Melatonin is involved in learning and memory and may be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. It is a powerful antioxidant able to protect DNA from free radical damage and may prevent the development of some forms of cancer. A gloomy example can be seen in night shift workers. Recent studies show that their disrupted circadian rhythms and low melatonin levels puts them at an increased risk of developing cancer. If you’re a night shift worker, try to offset your diurnal tendencies by adopting a strict diet and exercise plan. If possible, negotiate a way to work the day shift every other month.
Before you rush out and buy melatonin supplements, keep in mind that although this may help in the short term, it will cause your body to gradually produce less melatonin naturally. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is as restorative as natural sleep.
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Chronic sleep deprivation has profound alterations on glucose metabolism. The ability to secrete insulin and to respond to insulin decreases to roughly 30 percent, identical to early markers of diabetes. Research has shown that it is the disturbance of deep sleep, or REM, that is associated with hormonal disturbances. So it’s the quality of your sleep, not the quantity, that is ultimately important.
Poor sleep increases levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that has several beneficial effects on the body, but when chronically elevated becomes extremely problematic. A high level of cortisol lowers testosterone, impairs immunity, promotes muscle loss, and increases blood pressure. Cortisol also promotes the storage of fat, particularly around the abdominal area, where there is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Cortisol decreases the production of serotonin, and serotonin is increased after eating carbohydrates (sugar and starches). This is why many people eat sweets when stressed or when staying up late. Since serotonin enhances calmness, improves mood and lessens depression, this sets up cravings for additional sweets. Calming and positive thoughts also increase serotonin levels and coincidentally lower your desire for food. So close the fridge door and take a deep breath.
For successful weight loss, enhanced energy, better mood, and increased libido, try to keep your cortisol levels down by finding ways to reduce stress. Managing stress is by far the most challenging task in modern society. It can begin with the morning commute to school or work and end by listening to the news before bed.
Join the Dark Side
To get a better night’s rest, practice good sleep hygiene and follow the sleep strategies recommended by the Better Sleep Council:
- Make your bedroom a haven for sleep by making it a place of pleasure and rest, not stress and tension.
- Unwind and relax before going to bed. Write down stuff that’s got you worried so you can deal with it in the morning.
- Avoid coffee and stimulants in the evening. I guess that also extends to household chores.
- Try going to bed at the same time every night, including weekends. Regularity will help normalize your circadian rhythm.
- Don’t eat anything too heavy before bedtime. If you must eat something, choose protein and fat over carbohydrates. Cottage cheese and blueberries is a good choice.
- Keep your room cool, about 16-18 degrees Celsius. A room that’s too hot or too cold is uncomfortable.
- Sleep in a dark room. This is the most important advice since light is such a powerful force that wakes your brain way before your alarm clock goes off. In addition to light-proofing your window, get rid of that digital alarm clock with the LED display and remove any electronic equipment that has those annoying blinking lights. A clinical study published in the Journal of Pineal Research suggests that women who sleep in the brightest bedrooms have an increased risk of breast cancer. Don’t wait around for a similar study to be done on guys; turn that bedroom into a cave as soon as you can.
Remember, we all have a busy lifestyle with tons to do during our waking hours. But your productivity will suffer if you don’t get enough rest. The quality and quantity of the sleep you get can make all the difference in how you’re able to function the next day. And the day after. And the one after that.